“Isms” That Threaten to Undo Us: Ageism
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; February 28, 2021
2nd Sunday in Lent
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; 1 Peter 5:1-5
On this 2nd Sunday of Lent, we continue the sermon series “Isms That Threaten to Undo Us.” Because the series is meant to promote dialogue, I invite you to join me on Zoom Monday at 6:30 p.m. for what we are calling “Holy Conversations.” The setting provides a sacred space for you to speak your truth—without judgment or debate—and to pray with other believers who are seeking wisdom during these tumultuous times.
Today we turn our attention to “Ageism,” a term coined in 1969 to describe discrimination toward older people, old age, and the aging process. I learned of the term about 20 years ago when Kinney and I had two friends over the age of 50 with advanced degrees, who lost their jobs when their companies downsized. Months turned into years as they searched for employment. But because of their age and salary expectations based on experience, they seemed to be un-employable. Eventually, both pursued different professions, and both were convinced that they had experienced age discrimination.
The American Psychological Association reports that in people over 60, about 80% have experienced ageism. Examples of prejudice include people assuming seniors have memory or physical impairments because of their age, not taking them seriously, ignoring them or perceiving them as dependent, helpless, or demanding rather than deserving. But the reality is that most seniors are self-sufficient and have remarkable assets and gifts that are beneficial to society.
I once heard a story about a 90-year-old woman during a doctor’s visit who was accompanied by her daughter. Throughout the exam, the physician kept addressing the daughter instead of her mother, as if her mother was mentally hampered in some way. But this was no ordinary nonagenarian. Finally, fed up with the doctor, she posed a question, “Do you work the New York Times crossword puzzle?” He answered, “Well, yes, as a matter of fact, I do.” She countered, “So do I, in ink. So, any comments or questions you have regarding my health—you can address to me.”
While there are older folk who fit stereotypes like being set in their ways and being unwilling to change, that is not the norm. And even if it were, the aged among us deserve respect if for no other reason than having survived decades of the ups and downs of life. I have a special fondness for the elderly, maybe because in my formative years, it was my paternal grandmother who cared for me. Even with all the love she gave to her 8 children, there was enough love left over for me, and I am grateful. A friend shared a Facebook post on the topic that made me pause and ponder:
I asked an elderly man once what it was like to be old and to know the majority of his life was behind him. He told me that he has been the same age his entire life. He said the voice inside of his head never aged. He has always just been the same boy. His mother’s son. He had always wondered when he would grow up and be an old man. He said he watched his body age and his faculties dull but the person he was inside never got tired. Never aged. Never changed.
Abram was 99 when the Lord gave him a new name and blessed him with a covenant that would, in time, bless the entire world. God’s love is boundless so, of course, it could not be restricted to one people, the people of Israel. Through Abraham, through prophets, priests, and kings, and then, through Christ, God’s love reached out to us all.
Episcopal bishop and Native American Indian, Steven Charleston, offers this perspective on elders:
My culture respects the elders not only because of their wisdom, but because of their determination. The elders are tough. They have survived many struggles and many losses. Now, as they look ahead to another generation, they are determined that their sacrifices will not have been in vain, that their children’s children will not grow up in a world more broken than the one they sought to repair. The elders are voices of justice. They are champions for the earth. They defend the science of the community…
Our eternal grandparents are watching over us, all those who have gone before. They are our ancestors, and they have seen enough in their own lives to know what we are going through. They have survived economic collapse, social unrest, political struggle, and great wars that raged for years. Now, from their place of peace, they seek to send their wisdom into our hearts, to guide us to reconciliation, to show us our mistakes before we make them. Their love for us is strong. Their faith in us is certain. When times get hard, sit quietly and open your spirit to the eternal grandparents, who are still a part of your spiritual world. Receive their blessings, for their light will lead you home.[i]
Recognizing those who have gone before us is certainly not foreign to the Christian tradition. Following a chapter that recaps the history of the faith of our ancestors, Hebrews 12:1 tells us: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” We stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us. We benefit from their experiences and their sacrifices.
In the 21st Century, we are inundated with information, but we are lacking in wisdom. Sure, with the tap of a finger, we can google anything. But there is a difference between knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge is simply knowing something while wisdom involves perspective and the ability to make sound judgments based on knowledge. Knowledge might give us something to say, but wisdom will teach us when to say it. During these troubling times, we need elders to help tend the flock, to serve as guides, to teach us humility, and to point us to the grace and mercy and love of Jesus.
“Selma” is a powerful movie based on the 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery. Its theme song, performed by John Legend and Common, is entitled, “Glory.” Here are a few of the lyrics:
Somewhere in the dream we had an epiphany. Now we right the wrongs in history.
No one can win the war individually. It takes the wisdom of the elders and young people’s energy…
It takes the wisdom of the elders and young people’s energy. To accomplish our most important work—the work of justice, kindness, and walking humbly with God—it will take every one of us, no matter our age, gender, race, or nationality. We are all called. We are all equipped. We are all blessed by the God of Abraham and Sarah. Thanks be to God. Amen.
(Let us keep silence.)
[i] Steven Charleston, Ladder to the Light: An Indigenous Elder’s Meditations on Hope and Courage, 90.
*Cover Art by Rara Schlitt, Used by permission.